The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
When is the last time you changed your mind? Like, legit, you believed one thing, probably with good reason, and then something caused you to let go of that belief, in order to move toward a different one?
And what caused that to happen?
What authority, if I can use that word, factored into your change of mind, your change of heart?
John White and I started dating in 1992, and I probably met his grandfather in the early months of that year. (I tell this story with permission). Robert Frazee Main was kind, and funny; a child of the Great Depression, he knew the value of a dollar; he took pride in his career with IBM.
We were careful and friendly with one another in the early days that I was getting to know John’s family. And in that time, we grew to genuinely like each other. Some months after that initial awkward caution, we got into a discussion at dinner about business...and women’s rights.
“I don’t understand why women have to make their way into everything,” he said, in reference to women’s acceptance into the Kiwanis Club beginning in 1987. What I didn’t know was that John’s grandfather had been a member of Kiwanis since the 1940s. I didn't know that it had been a rocky transition when his chapter began to integrate women five years earlier. I didn't know that that rocky transition had taken place during the same time that John’s grandfather was nearingretirement from a career he had loved.
I bit my tongue against my first response, which would likely have been the product of the women’s studies classes I was taking at the time. Somehow, I asked about his experience of the group, about what had changed for him when Kiwanis ceased – literally – to be a men’s club. We talked about women seeking equal footing in the workplace, about opportunities to network and build the kinds of relationships that could lead to new clients and contracts and even careers. We talked about the fact that there was no alternative, no real parallel, for women to access and call our own.
Over the course of our discussion, the rest of the family left the table.
And somehow, some time later, John’s grandfather looked at me and said, “You know, you might be right. I believe I have changed my mind.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus shares the parable of a man who calls his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son says he won’t do it, but then he changes his mind and goes. The second son says he will go, but does not.
Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders which son has done the will of his father. They answer, the first – the one who shows up, even though he didn’t give the right answer at the beginning.
There are all kinds of allegories we can read into this text, given the commentaries I’ve seen in recent days. Is the father with the vineyard supposed to be God? Does the vineyard itself represent Israel? Does the first son stand in for tax collectors and prostitutes, and the second for the chief priests who bring on this conversation in the first place?
These are all worthy questions to explore, but the thing that captures my imagination is the question those leaders ask at the outset of this gospel, before Jesus deflects their question with another, before he tells the story of the two sons.
When Jesus enters the temple, the chief priests and the elders come to him as he is teaching, and they ask: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
This passage comes at the point when Jesus is thoroughly upsetting life in Jerusalem. He has made his triumphal entry – on a donkey, on the foal of a donkey – as people lay down their coats and wave palms to celebrate his arrival. He has entered the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers, insulting them and completely disrupting their business. Together with the elders and the chief priests, he has heard the children cry “Hosanna to the son of David,” naming Jesus as heir to that great king.
He seems bent on agitating and displacing life as they know it – life which, for those elders and chief priests, at least, is working pretty well up to that point.
And so they ask their own version of “Who do you think you are?” Which comes out: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you that authority?”
Again, I ask the question from the beginning: when was the last time you changed your mind?
And with it: what caused you to allow your mind, your heart, to be changed?
We have no shortage of agitators today. We have no shortage of people seeking to disrupt and upset. We have no shortage of opportunities where it would probably be understandable to ask: Who do you think you are?
And with that, add righteous indignation and a justifiably defensive posture and an echo chamber of People Like Us, and we can safely and understandably retreat back to places of comfort and the reassurance of our conviction.
And nothing changes.
But I'm telling you, something happened at that dinner table in Oregon in 1992. Something born of two people who knew each other a little and presumed good will. Both of us could have taken offense – I’m sure I said some dumb things in that conversation; and I also could have left the table at the outset. But I didn’t. And John’s grandfather didn’t. He could have seen me as the upstart feminist moving in on his territory; and I could have cast him as the close-minded protector of a good-old-boys’ club. Somehow, maybe by the grace of God, that didn’t happen. When we left the table, it was because our conversation was complete. And both of us were changed on the other side of it.
I don’t know how much room there is for moments like that today. And I hunger for us to carve and protect the kind of space where we can show up for each other, make it possible to pave a way for change, to give people the chance to turn around and find a new way, without risk of being cursed or jeered or gloated over.
We choose our authority, I believe. And authority wedded purely to our own conviction at the cost of our humanity is a deadly thing. I think that’s an authority we can ill afford.
Jesus refuses the question those elders and chief priests pose. When they won’t answer his questions to them about John the Baptist, he won’t answer theirs about who exactly he thinks he is.
After he tells them the story of the two sons, and they respond that the one who does the will of the father is the one who shows up, he tells them: “the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of you. Because John came, and you did not believe him, but they did. And even after you saw it, you didn’t change your minds and believe.”
What might have happened, in that moment, if the disruption had come full circle? What might have happened, if one of the elders, if two of the chief priests, had paused to consider, and responded: “I believe you’re right, and I have changed my mind”? What would have caved and changed and turned itself upside down in a moment like that?
And how can we create and protect space and humanity and grace and kindness in order that we can show up for each other, in order that it might just be possible in our own day?